25 Years After Prop 187: They Are Still Winning (OPINION)

Nov 18, 2019
12:24 PM

Protesters of Proposition 187 in Fresno, California in 1994. (Photo via Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Across California, commemorations, forums, and panels have recently discussed the 25-year impact of the state’s infamous anti-immigrant Proposition 187 measure.

I myself regret not being fully prepared to reflect on the timely anniversary. Instead, I am left to react to the commemorations of others, mostly those led by the mainstream media interviewing Latino politicians and a few grassroots leaders.

The general presentation of California 25 years later is that Pete Wilson, by championing the turning of schools and hospitals into deportation machines and banning public services to the undocumented, unwittingly ushered in a new era of Latino power. But as Dave Chappelle might suspiciously ask, “Word?”

I am not proud to say I know what an ass whooping feels like, but I do, and Prop 187 was then and has been an ass whooping. If you thought that period of time was a tough time for immigrant communities and Latinos in general, you should review the years to follow.

For one, Prop 187 passed, and it was not even close.

Second, Governor Pete Wilson, the “Paul Revere” crying “Save Our State” for Prop 187, easily won re-election.

Third, post-election analysis about Prop 187 showed significant opposition to immigration from African American voters (a bellwether liberal block) along with a high number of White Democrats. Asians and Latinos were the lone groups standing firm against Prop 187, and let’s face it, the measure’s main focus was about the “invasion” from Mexico than anything else.

Most importantly, Prop 187 defeated the idea that immigrants had rights. It also defined the place of brown people in American, the low-wage workers.

How anyone might look at the country after Prop 187 as a victory is surreal. As mentioned above, Wilson won a second term. Democratic President Bill Clinton then criminalized immigration status in passing the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIA), just two years after criminalizing youth with the passage of the “Crime Bill.”

Wilson then kicked off the national fight against issuing driver’s license to the undocumented and made massive cuts to public education, including annual 10% increases in UC tuition. Then he became a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. As they say, what happens in California goes national and Wilson’s policies didn’t stay local, they went national—fast!

Soon enough, Republican George Bush would serve two terms as President and usher in an era of permanent war, while Arnold Schwarzenegger would serve as California’s governor after recalling Gray Davis. Even if Davis was a victory, he lost the recall for raising taxes on car registrations. (He didn’t even go out taxing the rich.)

In Congress, HR 4437 nearly took Prop 187 national. The marches in response had the potential for a mass movement nearing mass civil disobedience and talk of a national strike. I was involved heavily in Southern California, and that is definitely where the brown community felt it was heading.

But guess who stepped in? National foundations, self serving bureaucrats, and Democratic Latino politicians who invented the worst chant ever—“Ayer marchamos/Hoy votamos.” Notice the past tense for activism? Notice the move from protest to elections?

A Victory?

So where is the victory? Have you noticed who the President is right now and how many people were deported under the previous DEMOCRATIC president? The truth is simple: Pete Wilson went national, just without Pete.

Now, 25 years later, the problem is still who the media is asking for comment. The mainstream media has interviewed those that benefited from the response to Proposition 187, not those affected by those policies that have now become normalized. Of course, when you ask Latino politicians 25 years after proposition 187 if “we” won, they say yes. They see personal success, that is, just the doors opened to them.

The result of Democratic policies benefiting post-187 Democratic majorities in California at all levels is now common. This has come from a new progressive voting block — Latinos who have delivered unreciprocated loyalty to Democrats. Democratic returns to Latinos is basically defending the party from attack. And corporate Democrats love it.

As a result, the Democratic establishment sets the Latino playbook— win with sympathy, opposition to attacks on immigration without any real policy to benefit working families. Essentially, the establishment has erroneously defined the greatest problem facing Latinos as immigration status and abuse. It is a battle for political office between race-baiting conservatives, and “I really do love you” Democrats over immigration to deport or not to deport. It is a political football neither party can or want to stop playing.

So, are we better off now than we were 25 years ago? Do Latinos have nicer homes now than we did then? Are UCLA or UC Berkeley cheaper or easier to get into? Is our health care in better shape? Are police more respectful of our rights? Is the border less dangerous or less polarized? What was worse, the Savings and Loans bailout, or the Wall Street bailout? How many hours a week do you work now compared to then? How long are you in traffic? What are asthma and cancer rates in our community now versus then? How many jobs do you have? Have you had a foreclosure or bankruptcy?

For sure, there are things to celebrate 25 years later. Republicans who bash immigrants are considered fringe and desperate. Gang violence and crime are down. Access to higher education is better. We have more Latino politicians and more middle-class Latino professionals, even a few rich ones. But let’s be clear, when the Latino political elite say we rose from the ashes more powerful than ever, they are talking about themselves. When liberal Latino labor leaders say, “We all came together,” they mean they got invited to the Democratic Party’s party. When foundation officers and nonprofit executives say we are stronger now, they mean “Look at what great jobs we have.” That is not to say there are not good people in strong places, it is just not the norm.

Meanwhile, services and public dollars spent in immigrant communities are disgraceful compared to services for white communities, now and in the past. Latino trade workers make nowhere near the wages of the middle class wages paid to white trade workers, now and in the past. The service work Latinos do is pretty much 99% at minimum wage. We even now have the so-called left calling for a $15 minimum wage they would themselves never work for. Just look around. In New York and Los Angeles, virtually every restaurant cook is two things—Latino and living in poverty. Tell me who in America has it tougher than a dark-skinned, monolingual Spanish (or indigenous) speaking, undocumented women?

The common denominator of working-class Latino immigrants government neglect is injustice, low wages and poverty. Never mind the fact that they have recently escaped brutal poverty and/or violence. Latinos basically come to America to happily become our manual labor in exchange for a life of poverty, with liberty and justice for some. But at least we have public education for their children, where there is still a whole lot of YOU who still marvel at how good we are at wood shop.


Javier González is the founder and principal of Tell That Story. He has over 20 years of experience in labor, community and political organizing. You can follow Javier on Twitter @javgonz.